In Response to Dr. Malcolm Yarnell’s Shall We “Build Bridges” or “Pull Down Strongholds”?

A practitioner’s decidedly unacademic answer to an esteemed theology professor’s uninformed opinion.

by Ernest Goodman

After reading Dr. Yarnell’s paper entitled Shall We “Build Bridges” or “Pull Down Strongholds”?, I was moved to respond. I won’t pretend to be a peer of Dr. Yarnell’s; he is certainly smarter and wiser than I. Nevertheless, I believe his paper demonstrates a general lack of understanding of the missionary reality. I don’t think I disagree with his theology as its stated here, only his missiological application of his interpretation of Acts 17:16-34. As an International Mission Board missionary to Western Europe, I want to share from my experience with what God is doing here in hopes of building up the Church and encouraging my brothers and sisters in Christ.

To begin his paper, Dr. Yarnell cites the biblical account of Paul at the Aeropagus in Athens. Dr. Yarnell writes in English, but includes an ancient Greek translation of many words. I don’t find it necessary to reproduce that here. Instead, I encourage anyone who reads this to also read the paper, which is posted here.

Communication of the gospel across cultures is no easy task. It requires translation and interpretation, both linguistically (Acts 2:5-12) and culturally (Matthew 28:19-20, Acts 1:8). Just as a sermon in Mandarin would mean nothing to most Saudi Arabians, an inappropriate cultural presentation of the gospel be equally ineffective. It would be counter-productive for a woman to share the gospel with a man in a Moroccan public market, even if she spoke perfect Arabic. Missionaries study cultural traits and values as well as language in order to engage people with the Good News.

When Paul refers to some popular poets in his speech to the Athenian philosophers, he isn’t “building bridges.” As a missionary, I recognize that in this particular conversation, Paul is crossing a cultural bridge to the gospel that already exists within the culture. Here, the host culture has some discussion of spiritual things. Paul enters into that discussion by referring to popular poets.

In missions, the concept of “looking for bridges” to engage the culture is very common. By “bridges,” we don’t mean that the gospel is there, just under the surface of popular culture, waiting for us to proof-text the lyric of a rock song or recite the dialog of a summer blockbuster. No, bridges are beginnings, ports of entry into the ongoing spiritual conversation that is being held within every culture.

The difference is important. In cross-cultural missions, we seek to introduce (or, indeed, reintroduce) the gospel to a people group in a way that they can understand and respond to. In this venture, we have at our disposal the culture’s histories and mythologies; not as substitutes for confrontational proclamation, but as “jumping off points” in our presentation of the Good News. Because humans bear the image of God, our cultures retain some traces of truth, some memory of God’s interaction with humanity. Most continually and actively engage in conversation about those traces of truth. As missionaries, we begin our incarnational engagement there, where people are talking about spiritual things.

These collective conversations within culture can provide the framework for a meaningful, contextually-appropriate discussion about Jesus. For example: many cultures have a creation “myth” that is different from, but not unlike the true account of creation in Genesis. While the biblical account is the inspired and true one, the others present us with a commonality that can bring us into discussion that allows us to compare and contrast our creation stories. Again, we’re not talking about building bridges, but rather crossing bridges that God has mercifully allowed to stand.

Imagine interacting with someone from another culture that has, for example, a flood story (as many do.) Granted, such stories may be far from the truth, and may exclude God entirely. But it is necessary to address such stories in order to dispel lies and misinformation within them. In my own ministry, I often share my faith by talking about my freedom from religion in Christ and my ongoing struggle to reject a works-based understanding of righteousness. Because the people here already have a (erroneous) concept of who God is and how humans relate to Him, I must acknowledge their religion in order for the conversation to move forward. What better way is there for me to acknowledge their religion (one that I have studied as an outsider, but do not see from their perspective) than to begin with what seem to be commonalities between their cultural religion and who God has revealed Himself to be in Scripture?

If the contrast between their “truth” and our Truth is the necessary proclamation of the exclusivity of Christ as humanity’s only home, the comparison (that is, acknowledging the similarities) of the stories serves as a testimony of God’s faithful interaction with the peoples of all cultures of the world throughout history.

“Second, because Paul engages with the philosophers of Athens, it

is assumed that he has established herein a paradigm for trying to make the Gospel

relevant to a culture unfamiliar with or hostile to Scripture. Specifically, some

missiologists argue that Paul is encouraging Christians today to preserve the worldviews

of other cultures as avenues of Gospel relevancy.”

I don’t know that Paul’s experience in Athens should be considered normative for missions, but I do see it a setting precedent for cultural references in missionary engagement of a culture.

The gospel does not need to be made relevant. Nor does it need to be “enabled” or “freed.” We can, however, do a poor job of communicating it. The way we talk about God most certainly needs to change to suit the context in which we find ourselves. The vast majority of our missionaries must learn a second (third, or fourth) language in order to talk about Jesus in a way that makes sense to the people with whom they work. Learning a language in order to share the gospel is contextualization.

The Areopagus sermon is a subtle but open proclamation of the good news that every man in every culture must hear.

It is also a proclamation of the gospel that requires just a bit of cultural background to be fully appreciated. In a similar way, the parables that Jesus told to farmers (Mark 4:3-9; Matt 13:3-9; Luke 8:5-8), shepherds (Matthew 28:12-14), fishermen (Matthew 13:47-50) and laborers (Matthew 20:1-16) are best understood by people who identify with those lifestyles. There’s a real power when the message is spoken in regard to culture rather than in spite of it.

Contextualization

The concept of a continuum of contextualization is familiar to international missionaries. We are consistently working in the tension between over contextualization (losing the truth of the gospel in translation) and under contextualization (holding so tightly to our terminology that communication is impossible). From the time we step foot in country, we devote ourselves to finding ways to share the gospel with people who are different from us. Most of us quickly realize that some adjustment to our usual evangelistic methods is necessary. Few of us would claim that the gospel is best shared by walking up to a stranger and telling him, in English, that he needs to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins. Why is that? Are we ashamed of the gospel? Are we trying to make it “cool?” Certainly not! Our efforts are made so that people might hear the good news in a way that makes sense to them.

If you give greater weight to the culture than you do to Scripture, then you are

truly acting as a liberal, even if you say you are orthodox.

What does it mean to “give weight to” something? As a missionary, my job is to translate the gospel from my culture to that of my hosts. Can I do this if I am unfamiliar with the gospel I wish to share? Of course not! But neither can I do the work of cultural translation without some insight into the host culture. Such insight is gained only through study (exegesis) of the culture and that which influences it.

As I mentioned previously, Dr. Yarnell included many ancient Greek words in his citation of Acts 17:16-34. Perhaps many of the people who read Dr. Yarnell’s paper are fluent in ancient Greek. Maybe he felt as though his interpretation of the original language supported his thesis. It’s likely his subculture places a high value on the inclusion of ancient Greek is academic papers. I would never presume to know why he thought that was an important thing to do, but I imagine it had something to do with his desire to get at the cultural implications of the original text. Something along the lines of, “sure, it says, world in English, but the original Greek word is kosmos, which meant…” This is significant because Dr. Yarnell clearly agrees that communication is dependent on the meanings a culture assigns to words.

Postmodern Applications

I’ve never much liked the label “postmodern;” mostly because those who use it tend not to understand it. I do not claim to know any better than Dr. Yarnell in regards to the matter, but he writes of postmodernism a “pop-philosophy” that has been “embraced” by Anglo-Americans missiology. I object to the notion that postmodernism is something that can be “embraced,” “adopted,” or otherwise assumed. I prefer to think of it as a worldview, not unlike the worldview of the people groups with whom I work here in Western Europe. Europeans don’t decide to think like Europeans any more than Dr. Yarnell decided to think like a modern American. Believers, especially American believers, think in varying degrees of modernity. Hence the current fractured state of disunity among Christians (including Southern Baptists.) But I digress.

Dr. Yarnell continues on to discuss the application of “cultural bridge building” to postmodern cultures (and possibly subcultures.) I believe that such application is wisely made, considering the great differences between modern and postmodern worldviews held by Americans today. He criticizes Brian McLaren for his inability (refusal?) to speak within Dr. Yarnell’s modernism. (Obligatory disclaimer:) I’m no fan of Brian McLaren. I will not try to defend him here. But in the Generous Orthodoxy cited in Dr. Yarnell’s paper, McLaren demonstrates an understanding of the cultural implications a religion has on the culture in which it is found.

It may be advisable in many (not all!) circumstances to help people become followers of Jesus and

remain within their Buddhist, Hindu, or Jewish context.

Again, I’ have no idea what exactly Brian McLaren meant by the above paragraph. In my limited experience in cross-cultural missions, however, I have come to learn that people of different cultures don’t tend to subscribe to our compartmentalization of religion and culture. For example: many Christians I have met around the world would say that one cannot be an American and a Christian. Why is that? Because they have an understanding of American culture (one that we do a fine job of exporting through media and perpetuating in person) that is incompatible with the basic teachings of Jesus. Stateside Christians, of course, distinguish between their nominally “Christian” culture and their faith in Christ. Those distinctions, I propose, must be made from within a given culture.

A Turkish man would consider himself Muslim whether he is a practicing, believing, adherent to that religion or not. Why is that? Because to be Turkish is to be Muslim. From their perspective, one cannot change his identity any more than one can change his ethnicity. Yet there are (few) Turkish believers. Of course, they consider themselves to be Christians, in that they are followers of Christ. But their culture is (secular) Muslim, not because of what it’s people believe, but because of it’s history, heritage, architecture, music, customs, and social systems.As these Turkish believers engage in evangelism and discipleship, should they require their brothers and sisters in Christ to forsake their nation’s architecture? Its food? Should they refuse to play traditional (Muslim) instruments? Should the women among them change their (modest) style of dress?

The same dynamic exists in many European cultures. Spaniards are Catholics, despite the fact that the vast majority of the population also claims to be atheist/agnostic. Many Spaniards refer to their language, Castilian, as “Christian” (As in the popular reprimand for anyone speaking one of Spain’s minority national languages in public, “Speak Christian, man!”). When a Spaniard comes to faith in Christ, he can reject all that is contrary to the truth of the Scriptures, including what is taught and practiced by the Roman Catholic Church. He can adopt a Christ-centered value system and ethical standard. But he cannot become less Spaniard than he is.

Nor should we want him to. Within this understanding of unity of culture and religion, why would we want a Buddhist to leave his cultural context? For the sake of incarnational witness, we need more Christians in Buddhist cultures and Christians in Catholic cultures. Should Arabic believers use the English word “God” to refer to the Most High because Islam uses the word “Allah?” Who should decide? This is why, missiologically speaking, Christians from Muslim cultures are not called “Former Muslims,” but “Muslim-Background Believers.” They are best suited to translate the gospel into their own culture.

Did the first followers of Jesus call themselves “Christians?” Or did they consider themselves to be good Jews?

Dr. Yarnell later intrepts McLaren to say:

If traditional Christian churches are to be made relevant, they

must strive to come closer to the culture in which they are placed.

Again, I have no idea what Brian McLaren believes. I, however, believe that the gap between the mainstream culture and the “Christian” subculture many Americans find themselves in should be filled. This should not and cannot be accomplished by efforts to “make the church relevant,” but by ceasing the active propagation of the myth of Christian culture. In other words, if our churches valued indigenous interpretation of scriptural truth, we would see expressions of Christianity that reflect (and therefore affect) the cultures in which we find ourselves. Churches would be “relevant” (I prefer “contextually appropriate”) if we stopped making people look like us in order to follow Jesus. But because many of us fail to see the cultural influences on our own Christianity. If we think that ours is a pure Christianity, unaffected by the world and its cultures, it makes sense that we would be wary of missional contextualization.

Though it is indeed “good news,” the gospel is offensive. That humanity is utterly powerless to save itself, and that salvation cannot be earned is an offense to natural human pride. In communicating this offensive message across cultures, we must insure that it is the gospel, and not our unintelligible presentation thereof, that offends. On the one hand, we must boldly search for meaningful ways to communicate. On the other, we must be discerning in our methods, lest we fall into syncretism.

No earthly culture is Christian. God’s truth is counter-cultural in every setting. But not every aspect of every culture is devoid of truth. Besides natural revelation (powerless to save, but it effectively leaves humanity without excuse before God), there are threads of truth woven into every human culture. While humanity is utterly fallen, it doesn’t take much investigation to see that every culture has something; a morality, a value, a sense of oughtness, in common with God’s desire for us.

At the tower of Babel, God separated the people, He didn’t unite them (Genesis 11:1-10, Psalm 67:4). I believe that God enjoys diversity (Acts 28:28). When a French believer appropriates French customs to worship the Almighty, God is glorified. Hymns sung by believers in their tribal heart language bring more glory to God than if that same tribe sang in English (Revelation 7:9).

Interpretations of the Areopagus Sermon

In his discussion on interpretations of Paul’s Areopagus Speech, Dr. Yarnell presents “bridge building” and “tearing down stongholds” as an either/or dichotomy. For him, the popular interpretation of the Acts 17 text lends itself to empty bridge building. I, too, believe that we must interpret the account in context. Paul’s speech may be confrontational, but confrontational in a way that demonstrated some cultural sensitivity. He didn’t quote the Greek poet to disagree with him. In fact, Paul affirmed the truth of the secular poet’s words by using them to communicate the gospel to the philosophers.

Certainly Paul contradicted Greek philosophy. But he didn’t dismiss it out of hand. He selectively confronted those aspects of the philosophy that were contrary to Christianity. How could he be selective unless he had made himself at least somewhat informed concerning the philosophy?

Scripture views idols, not as “points of contact,”

but as “points of separation,” for behind idols lie false gods, also known as demons.

I agree completely with Dr. Yarnell about the evil behind idols. I don’t think that idols should be seen as “points of contact.” But I do think that people within a culture are often aware of deep spiritual needs that their idols are proposed to fill. For the spiritually prepared intentional witness, a discussion about idols is the beginning of a discussion about God’s power to meet our needs. So too are conversations about sin, fear, death, life, ethics, religion, etc. natural conversational beginnings to presentation of (and confrontation with) the gospel.

I enjoyed Dr. Yarnell’s interpretation of Acts 17:16-34, and have no disagreements with it except those things that I’ve already mentioned.

Ultimately, my differences with the opinions Dr. Yarnell posits in his paper center around his view of culture. Is there spiritual value in indigenous worldviews? I believe that there is. Does God care about the things that make one people group different from another? (Acts 15, Galatians 5:2) If not, why not teach people English in order to preach to them? Why not set up First Southern Baptist Church franchises around the world, bulletins, Sunday School material, and all?

The North American expression of Christianity is not universal. (Nor is it especially biblical, but that’s another paper.) I don’t think anyone believes that it is, otherwise missionaries would be spreading the good news by propagating American culture. No, our understanding of the faith comes through our cultural lenses of language and worldview.

Culture is never a neutral category. Culture may be summarily defined as a

pattern of social interaction in human thought and deed. Because culture is

human, culture is fallen, too. While we recognize that God directs the times

and bounds of human cultures, he allows man freedom to obey and disobey

him. In his sinfulness, man often exalts evil in his culture, just as the Greeks

did with the idols and demons or false gods; just as my own ancestors did.

Realistically, therefore, our pattern should never be culture, but the cross. We

are not called to be disciples of culture who survey society in order to discover

truth or even rediscover the gospel.

Culture is not “neutral.” But since we cannot divorce ourselves completely from it (it is impossible and highly undesirable to become acultural), we must look for ways to operate within it. My job is to enter a culture that is not my own in order to make disciples here. I cannot begin that endeavor with ignorant, presumptive confrontation. We are led by the Holy Spirit to engage culture as students of it. Through that process, we can begin to challenge those aspects of the culture that are not God-honoring, and affirming those that are.